Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950

The Origins of the Co-Op Bookshops

The Origins of the Co-Op Bookshops

In parallel developments in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch (Dunedin lagged some years behind) the co-op book societies evolved in the late 1930s out page 90 of existing left-wing bookshops which had close practical and ideological ties with either the Communist Party or the Friends of the Soviet Union. These earlier shops sold mostly pamphlets and periodicals and a narrow range of books of a socialist and working class nature. In a development which followed direcdy from the Communist Party's adoption of a united front policy, they were superseded by broader-based progressive bookshops. These were run by democratically-elected committees representing a range of liberal and left opinion, and stocked a wider range of literature than their rather doctrinaire predecessors, from Marxist texts to general political, economic and social criticism, scientific and philosophical works, children's books and contemporary fiction, poetry and drama.

Auckland's Progressive Bookshop held both the honour of being the first of the cooperative bookshops to be established and the reputation for being the most radical. Opened in 1936 by Jack and Doris Basham, it was known affectionately by those who worked there as 'Basham's Bomb Shop'. (The name is attributed to Robin Hyde, and probably refers to the celebrated 'Bomb Shop' in London's Charing Cross Road which was the first of the Collett's chain of left-wing bookshops.3 ) Jack Basham, a former member of the British Navy, and at this time a watersider, trade unionist, active member of the Left Book Club and Auckland district secretary of the Friends of the Soviet Union, had a long career as a political activist in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, including a conviction for selling a copy of the Labour Monthly to an Auckland undercover policeman.4 He began his career as a bookseller in the early 1930s selling FSU leaflets from a suitcase on the Auckland waterfront. Within a few years demand for literature about the Soviet Union had outgrown the capacity of his suitcase and premises were leased for a shop in Pitt Street, off Karangahape Road. The Auckland carpenters' union provided the necessary labour and the Progressive Bookshop was opened in May 1936, complete with £60 worth of books and pamphlets on credit, and shelving made from packing cases.

The shop was able to stock a wider range of literature than just FSU leaflets and the Workers' Weekly. Its letterhead read: Tor all radical literature, anti-fascist, socialist & rationalist publications, realist novels, agents for USSR in Construction, Sovietland, Moscow News, Economic Summary of the USSR.'5 To Robin Hyde, writing in the weekly New Zealand Observer, 'The catalogue looked to me, at first glance, like one rush to Russia, but these tomes are followed up by books on Marxism, Fascism, Rationalism, War, Revolutionary Novels, and the publications of Bishop Brown', as well as an extensive list of left-wing periodicals.6 As Hyde also pointed out, the relaxation of censorship restrictions by the Labour government that year was an additional prerequisite for a viable and broadly-based left-wing bookshop.

The shop's monthly turnover increased from £30 to £100 in the first 10 page 91 months, vindicating the founding belief that 'there was a large potential demand for socialist literature which was not being adequately met by the commercial bookshops'.7 By 1937 Progressive Books claimed to have 'regular customers all over New Zealand, including public libraries as far afield as Dunedin and Whangarei.'8 That year a management committee was formed and the shop became a limited liability company. The Progressive Book Society was registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act 1908 as a cooperative trading organisation (as were all the cooperative book societies) with capital of £250 and shares at £1 each. This move was intended to place the shop on a more secure financial basis and broaden its appeal. In November it moved to larger premises in Darby Street, off lower Queen Street.

The prospectus issued by the society made a special appeal to trade unionists, who 'have unique opportunities for furthering the work of the Company, and they should also have a unique sympathy with its objective', and at the same time the observation that, among Progressive Books' current shortcomings, 'Its contacts with the professional classes are limited and it attracts few casual customers . . . nor has it been able to work the country districts at all systematically/9 Consistent with the broad social and political basis thus defined, the signatories to the prospectus and the members of the society's first committee constituted a roughly equal mix of academic, professional and labour interests. Three were staff members of Auckland University College: W. A. Sewell, Professor of English and WEA tutor; R.P. Anschutz, Professor of Philosophy; and Willis Airey, lecturer in History, who was also prominendy involved in the WEA and was chairman of the society in the mid 1940s. There were three trade union secretaries: F. Craig of the Auckland Timber Workers' Union, J.G. Kennedy of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners (Auckland branch) and Tom Stanley, secretary of the Auckland Builders' and General Labourers' Union and chairman of the CPNZ. The remaining signatories to the prospectus were WEA director N. M. Richmond; Frank Haigh, a lawyer (and friend of A.R.D. Fairburn) who represented the Communist Party and a number of trade unions; and R. V. Shaw, a medical practitioner. The society's first chairman (1937-9) was A.H. O'Keefe, a Victoria University College graduate who was then working for the Public Trust Office. Its first auditor was Samuel Leathern, an Economics and Commerce graduate and part-time lecturer at Auckland College who was also widely active on the left; he later served as chairman of Progressive Books for some years. The Bashams continued to run the shop, with Jack as manager and Doris 'in actual charge of the shop',10 until the end of 1941 when ill-health forced them to retire. The new manager was Arthur Jackson-Thomas, who was to remain with Progressive Books for over 20 years.

page 92

While Auckland was the first city to have a cooperative book society, it had been the last to have a radical bookshop in the 1930s. In Christchurch left-wing literature had been available in at least the early 1930s from the Communist Party's International Bookshop in Manchester Street. The International Bookshop sold 'a very narrow range of books, mostly Marxist pamphlets and the like', and by the mid 1930s was 'slowly dying'.11 Early in 1937 the Communist Party Local Party Committee (LPC), aware of the shop's 'serious position', with outdated and depleted stocks, inadequate management and a deficit of £30, took steps to resuscitate it by appointing a Party committee to take over interim control. It was decided that the shop should become relatively autonomous from the Party and its name be changed to the Progressive Bookshop. Advertising would be extended, business methods improved and regular hours kept. 'Slovenly, undisciplined habits are not working class', a report to the LPC sternly advised; the shop was no longer to be regarded as a Party drop-in centre but as a business.12 A suggestion that its library stock only material about the Soviet Union was rejected as too sectarian (although it continued to house the library of the local branch of the FSU). It was still to be considered a Party bookshop however and would cater primarily to Party goals; that is, to a working class clientele. The report recommended that 80 per cent of the stock be priced at under 3/-, as 'now more than ever it is important to give cadres of the working class Marxist-Leninist education'.13

A further Party memorandum early in 1938 commented on the need for a Bookshop Committee to be established 'on a broad basis—intellectuals etc.', and for the shop to extend its stock so as to become 'not a narrow Party bookshop but [sell] all classes of progressive literature'.14 The initiative behind the establishment of the Christchurch Co-operative Book Society appears to have come, however, not from the Communist Party directly but from the Left Book Club. In Winston Rhodes' recollection, the initial move came from Harold Fenton, the Left Book Club agent in Christchurch. Fenton approached Rhodes and other Left Book Club members with the proposal in 1938, and the society was launched at a public meeting held in the Christchurch Trades Hall on 22 August. Forty people attended and 171 £1 shares were subscribed. By the first annual general meeting nine-weeks later the membership of the society numbered 128 and total capital subscribed amounted to £333. The entire stock of the International or Progressive Bookshop, as it was variously known, was taken over along with £25 in debt, and new premises in New Regent Street acquired. The shop was renamed the Co-op Bookshop.

Although not as representative in Popular Front terms as the Auckland society, the board of management of the Christchurch Co-operative Book Society comprised a similar range of backgrounds. About half the board were active members of the Left Book Club: Bruce Souter, Hubert Henderson, page 93 Evelyn Lawn and Winston Rhodes, who was chairman of the society from its formation until the 1950s, with the exception only of 1943-4. Another board member who shared with Lawn a background as a student radical at Canterbury College in the early 1930s was Travers Christie, who had since joined the Communist Party and was working as a clerk. He was to achieve national prominence of a sort when he was sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment with hard labour in 1941 for publishing 'subversive' statements in the People's Voice, in a case which also involved the son of a Supreme Court judge and allegations of official bribery.15 The remaining members of the board were a lawyer, L. B. Freeman; J. S. Roscoe, a civil servant; the secretary of the Canterbury Freezing Workers' Union, H.G. Kilpatrick; and Harold Fenton who was appointed secretary-manager of the shop. The Communist Party had hoped to ensure two places on the board but had to be content with only one.16

The sale of left-wing literature in the capital in these years has a history going back to the early 1920s. Walter Nash opened the Clarte Book Room in 1921, firsdy in Dixon Street and later Willis Street. Clarte stocked a wide range of 'socialist and working class literature', from Studies in Capital and Investmentby G.D.H. Cole at 15/- and Darwin's The Origin of Species, to 3d pamphlets by Harry-Holland, the Labour Songbook and 'novels by Upton Sinclair and others', and was the New Zealand agency for over a dozen periodicals including the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, Socialist Review, the American Exporter and House Beautiful—a more extensive selection than one would find in Christchurch's International Bookshop. But the market for such literature was evidently too small for the financial and personal resources of one person, however dedicated. Nash sold the shop to the Labour Party in 1924 and it was moved to the party office; the original name was retained until 1934 when it was changed to the more recognisable, and mundane, Labour Bookroom.17

The direct precursor of the Wellington Co-operative Book Society was another International Bookshop. This had its origins as an FSU bookshop which opened in 1932 in Vivian Street, also the home of Trades Hall, the Wellington Communist Party offices and the WEA. Its founder was Connie Rawcliffe (later Birchfield), a national executive member of the FSU and Communist Party member. In 1933 it was taken over by a former arts student, B.A. Fortune, and opened on a full-time basis with a wider range of material. Bart Fortune, then aged 19, had left Victoria College that year without a degree but with a set of radical beliefs fostered by the Free Discussions Club and a desire 'to get down to working class level'.18 The Free Discussions Club was the focus of the small but vocal radical left at Victoria in the early 30s. Fortune was its secretary and editor of the first two numbers of its journal Student In Fortune's recollection the International Bookshop in these years attracted only 10-15 page 94 customers a day, mostly impoverish[ed] . . . working people and students'.'19 This was, in his view, part of the reason why the shop was never prosecuted for selling 'seditious' literature. It was also part of the reason why, by late 1934, the shop was bankrupt. Unlike its Christchurch namesake the Wellington International Bookshop was not an official Party bookshop, according to Fortune; he himself did not join the Communist Party until 1935, and then not publicly. It was, however, 'entirely sympathetic', selling mostly FSU material and Marxist theoretical works from Lawrence and Wishart (London) and International Publishers (USA), and English language Soviet publications such as Moscow News and USSR in Construction imported directly from Kniga (Moscow). Its Communist Party association was strengthened when it was taken over at the end of 1934 by Party member Ella Stewart (later Ayo).

The initiative behind the formation of the Wellington Co-operative Book Society came partly from Fortune. This was not a Party directive but, as he explains, followed direcdy from the united front policy:

the origin of the WCBS arose from the aftermath of the 7th World Congress insofar as I was concerned. The objective was to draw Together people of liberal and leftist persuasion, irrespective of party affiliation, to create a body of opinion in opposition to the trend towards fascism and war. . . . people of all persuasions concerned about the rise of fascist dictatorship and the threat of war and the likely social and cultural consequences.

W. B. Sutch was 'principally instrumental in drawing in the intellectual liberal-left.'20

The credentials of those who appear as sponsors in the prospectus issued in 1938 (drafted by Fortune), and of those who comprised the society's provisional committee, convey a significantly different impression from its Auckland and Christchurch counterparts, prefiguring the stronger academic-professional base and lesser trade union involvement that marked the Wellington society. A provisional committee of the New Zealand Co-operative Book Society, as it was initially called, was appointed in November 1938 following a public meeting attended by 120 people and addressed by members of the Auckland and Christchurch societies. The committee consisted of: Fortune (who was now working for a radio manufacturing company); J. C. Beaglehole (who chaired the first two meetings of the society); the current International Bookshop manager, M. Moreton; Maud England, a craft shop manager; M. Munro, a teacher; P. Murdoch, a postal officer; Evan Parry, a lawyer; and D. von Sturmer representing the New Zealand Co-operative Alliance. Others who were involved in or publicly supported the formation of the society included: Labour MP Ormond Wilson; W. H. Gould, Professor of Education at Victoria College; educationalist A. E. Campbell, acting director of the WEA in Wellington; page 95 Canterbury College lecturer in Economics, George Lawn, who was appointed to the directorate of the Reserve Bank in 1938; E. S. Andrews, the director of the National Film Unit; A.H. Scotney, a Left Book Club member, student and founding editor of the Victoria student newspaper Salient; D. G. Edwards, also a member of the Left Book Club, Victoria graduate and later a teacher; prominent pacifist and WEA tutor A. C. Barrington; and lawyer A. Thorn. The first elected committee of the Wellington Co-operative Book Society was, however, more representative on the Auckland and Christchurch model. Its members were: Beaglehole (president); Fortune (secretary); Sutch; anthropologist J. D. Freeman; K. M. Baxter of the printers' union; long-time Communist Party member Elizabeth (better known as Gran) McGowan; and Arthur Jackson-Thomas, who worked in radio drama in Wellington from 1938 until 1942 when he was appointed manager of Progressive Books in Auckland. (Jackson-Thomas had earlier acted in the Christchurch Left Book Club drama productions in 1937, and in Auckland produced plays for the WEA Dramatic Club.)21 At least three members of the committee were Communist Party members. 'Modern Books' opened in the Dominion Farmers' Institute in Featherston Street in 1939. It moved shordy after to Woodward Street, off Lambton Quay, and in 1944 to Manners Street.

Although Dunedin was slow to establish a cooperative book society, that city's radicals and bibliophiles had not wanted for political literature in the 30s. A Progressive Bookshop selling 'Latest Literature on all Phases of the Class Struggle' was opened in Moray Place in 1935. It was staffed by a Communist Party member but it is not clear whether it was an official Party concern. In May 1937 the shop was closed and a Central Labour Bookshop, apparendy under the same management, opened in George Street (later moving to High Street). Along with 'Political, Industrial, Economic, Anti-War, Rationalist, [and] Social Credit' literature it advertised novels by Jack London, Upton Sinclair and John A. Lee, and '"Free Lance" and other popular periodicals'.22 Its presence was not appreciated by some sections of the community, however. Threats of physical violence were made against the shop's manager by militant members of the Dunedin RSA after the outbreak of the war, and it was closed down shortly after.23

The Dunedin Co-operative Book Society did not get underway until 1942, with financial support from the newly-formed Progressive Publishing Society and on the initiative of Left Book Club members. Plans were commenced in 1941, but it was not until November 1942 that 80 'progressives' attended a meeting addressed by publishing society representatives. 'Preliminary steps [were] taken to secure the support of the Trade Union and Labour Movements.'24 At this stage Dunedin shareholders were registered as members of the page 96 Christchurch society. The Dunedin society held its first annual meeting in 1943 although application for registration as a cooperative society was not made until August 1944 and legal difficulties then delayed its registration until July 1945. The Registrar of Industrial and Provident Societies sought legal opinion which held that the 300-word statement of the society's socialist principles and objective as the first object defined in its constitution precluded it being registered under the act, according to which the primary purpose of such a society must be to engage in trading activities. The constitution was consequendy altered with the offending statement abridged and moved to 'ancillary powers', and permission sought from the Minister of Finance, Walter Nash, before the society was finally registered.25

Dunedin's Modern Books opened in Moray Place in December 1943. The seven signatories to the application were: Otago University Librarian John Harris (president); G. W. Parkyn, university lecturer in Education; Dr Muriel Bell, nutritional research officer; Dr A.D.G. Blanc, a medical practitioner; Dorothy Neale White, Deputy Librarian at Dunedin Public Library; Labour MP Peter Neilson; and Mark Silverstone, former Labour City Councillor and a director of the Reserve Bank.26

3 J. F. Ewen, quoted in '25 Years Old. Progressive Book Society Ltd.', leaflet, [1961]. Author's collection. Several other members of the Progressive Book Society also recall the name 'Basham's Bomb Shop' having been coined by Robin Hyde. On the London 'Bomb Shop' see S. Hodges, Gollancz. The Story of a Publishing House 1928-1978. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1978, p.134

4 R. Hyde, 'Jack Basham's Bookshop. Land of the Free—Since When?', New Zealand Observer, 11 June 1936, p.11

5 Letterhead on letter from D. Basham to D. Lyon, 27 July 1936. C1 36/959: box 152. National Archives

6 Hyde, 'Jack Basham's Bookshop'

7 Progressive Books Ltd. Prospectus, 1937. Robert Lowry Papers. Ms Papers A-194: box 1, folder 4. University of Auckland Library

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 'BigNewsfor Progressive Books', InPrint, 10 Feb. 1943, p.2

11 H. W. Rhodes. Interview with author, 4 June 1985

12 Communist Party of New Zealand (Christchurch branch). LPC minutes, 24 Apr. 1937; ms notes on bookshop, [nd]; circular, [nd] .Jack Locke Deposit: item 7. University of Canterbury Library

13 CPNZ (Christchurch branch). Executive minutes, 16 Mar. 1937; ms notes on bookshop, [nd]. Locke Deposit: 12, 7

14 'Organisational proposals', [1938?]. Locke Deposit: 12

15 N.M.Taylor, The New Zealand People at War: The Home Front. Wellington: Historical Publications Branch, Department of Internal Affairs/Government Printer, 1986, pp.218-19

16 Christchurch Co-operative Book Society Ltd. Minutes of first general meeting, 31 Oct. 1938. Christchurch Co-operative Book Society. Minute books, 1938-1970. Ace 90-259. Alexander Turnbull Library; Workers' Weekly, 25 Nov. 1938, p.4

17 Clarte Book Room. Booklists, [1920s-1930s]. Roth collection; correspondence. Mark Silverstone Papers. Ms Papers 1016: box 1. Hocken Library; K. Sinclair, Walter Nash. Auckland: Auckland University Press/Oxford University Press, 1976, p.62

18 B.A. Fortune. Interview with author, 7 Sept. 1985

19 Fortune. Letter to author, 10 Oct. 1985

20 Ibid.

21 Wellington Co-operative Book Society Ltd. Minutes of inaugural meeting, 28 Nov. 1938. Wellington Co-operative Book Society Ltd. Papers, 1938-1970. Ms Papers 1122: box 5/1. Alexander Turnbull Library

22 Workers' Weekly, 16 Nov. 1935, p.4,7 May 1937, p.-4

23 Otago Daily Times, 13 Mar. 1940, p.6; P. and W. Powell. Interview with author, 22 Oct. 1989

24 Co-operative Book News, Nov.-Dec. 1942 (v.1, n.11), p.1

25 Revising Barrister to Registrar of Industrial and Provident Societies, 26 Mar. 1945; W. L. Robertson to Mrs Harris, 27 Feb. 1945. Modern Books, Dunedin. Papers, 1944-55. Ms Papers 711. Hocken Library; Co-op Books (Dunedin ed.), Apr. 1945 (v.2, n.4), p.[1]

26 Dunedin Co-operative Book Society Ltd. Application for incorporation, 28 Aug. 1944. Dunedin Modern Books Papers